Social Permaculture—What Is It?

Posted on December 1, 2016 by


Within the permaculture movement, more and more of us have been looking at aspects of something we’ve come to call “social permaculture.” But what is that?

People often think of permaculture as another system of gardening or land management, but it is far more. Permaculture is a system of ecological design that looks to nature as our model. It originated in the ’70s with Australian ecologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, who were looking to create a “permanent agriculture.” Now it has become a worldwide movement, and expanded to encompass “permanent culture.”

Patrick Whitefield, author of The Earthcare Manual, called permaculture “the art of designing beneficial relationships.” We look at plants in the garden not in isolation but in terms of how they affect one another, how they interact, how the pathways and beds determine the flow of our energy in caring for them, how they can provide fertility or protection for one another, how we can get multiple yields from each element.

But relationships between plants, insects, soil, water, and micro-organisms, complex as they may be, are relatively easy to deal with. Roses love garlic—or so says the title of a key book on companion planting. And pretty much they do. We don’t have to worry about whether this particular rose holds a grudge against that individual garlic for something insensitive it said to her.

People are much more challenging. We each have our own needs and goals and complicated life histories and styles of communication. Our understanding of soil biology or water harvesting techniques is often far more advanced than our skills at making decisions together. Our needs and goals often clash, and we don’t always have the tools we need to resolve conflicts.

According to Diana Leafe Christian, author of the key book on intentional communities, Creating a Life Together, 90 percent of intentional communities fail—largely because of conflict. That statistic represents an enormous amount of shattered dreams, personal pain, and wasted resources.

Why are human relationships so difficult? We each carry the imprints of our early experiences, and often respond to current situations with the negative patterns of the past. We hold onto painful memories and anticipate future hurts. When we come together in community, our own needs, goals, and communication patterns often clash.

Moreover, we are embedded in larger systems that do not encourage beneficial relationships. Our overarching economic system sacrifices the good of people and the earth to the goal of achieving short-term profits. It maintains itself by fostering systems of prejudice and exploitation—racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism—all those constructs that separate us and elevate some peoples’ good over others. Those systems affect us deeply, often unconsciously, no matter how much we might deplore them and struggle against them.

People are hard to change. Religions, psychotherapy, meditation, self-help programs, diet and exercise programs, stop-smoking campaigns, 12-step programs, and the criminal justice system all attempt to change people—and when they succeed it is often only after months or years of painful effort. Most of us have experienced just how difficult it is to change ourselves!

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What can permaculture—which began as a way of looking at food growing and land management—bring to this effort?

The key insight of social permaculture is that, while changing individuals is indeed difficult, we can design social structures that favor beneficial patterns of human behavior. Just as, in a garden, we might mulch to discourage weeds and favor beneficial soil bacteria, in social systems we can attempt to create conditions that favor nurturing, empowering relationships.

Permaculture’s three core ethics are care for the earth, care for the people, and care for the future—that third ethic is also often framed as “fair share”: share surpluses and reduce consumption. These ethics can serve as a guideline for weighing our decisions and actions. Before we build a structure or engage in a new endeavor, we ask ourselves—how will this impact the environment around us? What resources will it use? Will it provide for people and community, and further empowerment and equality, or the reverse?

Permaculture rejects the notion that people are separate from nature and inevitably destructive, or that destruction of the environment is justified in order to provide jobs or profits for people. Instead, the good of the people and the good of the earth go together. For example, Tony Rinaudo of Global Vision, an organization that has successfully reforested millions of hectares of land in Niger, Mali, and Ethiopia, found that involving farmers in regeneration efforts, teaching them simple techniques to protect and prune existing trees and plant new ones, and allowing them to benefit from the increased firewood and other products was the key to success.

An enterprise that is destructive to the environment is inevitably bad for people. Without a thriving, vibrant ecosystem around us, people cannot thrive. And without limits to exploitation and consumption, without an ethic of returning benefits to soil, to plant, animal, and human communities, balance cannot be obtained.

One aspect of social permaculture looks at how physical structures impact social interactions. This aspect of social permaculture has some key forerunners from the disciplines of city planning, economics, and architecture. Economist Jane Jacobs, in her classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, articulated patterns that make for lively and diverse urban spaces. Christopher Alexander and his group of architects, back in the ’70s, compiled the groundbreaking book A Pattern Language, which looks at the built environment from a city scale down to the décor on your house walls in terms of the human relations that structures and spaces elicit.

Today, the group City Repair, based in Portland, Oregon, creates gathering spaces out of intersections and hosts an annual Village Building Convergence to teach natural building techniques and permaculture and collectively transform the urban environment. Founded by architect Mark Lakeman, the group models how creating inviting social spaces can influence a city, from slowing traffic to encouraging neighborhood unity and civic engagement. They have inspired similar efforts in cities all over the US and worldwide.

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Permaculture has a set of principles, derived from an understanding of ecology and systems theory—guidelines for how we go about designing systems. Some translate directly into social applications. For example, in designing a garden we understand that diversity is a value. We might plant polycultures instead of monocultures, including flowers in the vegetable patch to bring in beneficial pollinators or planting multiple varieties of apples in the orchard.

In human systems, valuing diversity might lead us to value our differences instead of letting them divide us. A community that includes people of diverse ages, genders, races, sexual orientations, physical abilities, and economic backgrounds, as well as diverse ideas, cultures, and opinions, will have broader perspectives and a deeper understanding of issues and events, as well as more resilient responses. For example, in one of our recent Earth Activist Trainings—permaculture design courses with a grounding in spirit and a focus on organizing and activism—a young environmental activist ended up working on a design project with a Spanish farmer who currently uses pesticides and artificial fertilizers. Initially shocked at the farmer’s use of chemicals, the activist found himself growing to understand the farmer’s constraints and needs at a much deeper level, and the farmer found himself inspired and enthusiastic at the prospects for transitioning his farm to become a permaculture model.

Diversity must be functional. Planting a cactus in a redwood forest will not create more diversity—it will result in a dead cactus. A cattle rancher and a hard core vegan may never be happy farming together.

Creating meaningful diversity requires a process of self-reflection and personal growth and transformation. What are the values and practices that are deeply important to us, that we don’t want to compromise? Where are there places that opening to difference might expand our horizons? Are there ways in which our community norms and assumptions are limiting our diversity? Are we responding to differences in others out of fear or prejudice, or the privileged assumption that our group norms are universal standards?

Embracing diversity also means confronting those systems of racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, heterosexism, and all the other destructive patterns of discrimination and structural oppression that keep us divided and separate. It requires us to actively engage in efforts to change those larger societal patterns.

Functional diversity might mean bringing in women and people of color at the beginning of a project, not at the end; including diversity in the organizing committee that plans a conference and determines its overarching culture, rather than inviting one black speaker at the last minute. It might mean providing facilities that allow access to diverse participants: for example, providing childcare for a conference so that parents of young children can attend; offering translation so that non-English speakers can contribute to a discussion; providing interpreters for the Deaf or wheelchair-accessible facilities for the differently-abled. It might also mean making an organizational commitment to look at issues of power and privilege, and to engage in training and education to expand our understanding of different cultures and heritages.

Earth Activist Training, the organization I direct, offers Diversity Scholarships for people of color and differently-abled people for our programs and trainings. We have found that when the composition of a group shifts so that a third or more of the group are people of color, the group culture also changes and excitement and learning radically increase. Diverse groups can be more challenging to facilitate, as differences sometimes clash, but the depth of learning that results is more than worth the efforts.

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There are many other permaculture principles that can inform our social designs. The principle of edge or ecotones, for example, tells us that where two systems meet, a third system arises, dynamic and diverse. Where the ocean meets the shore, the varied conditions of tides and waves create multiple niches for various forms of life. Where two human systems meet, we can expect great creativity and possibly also tension and conflict. The meeting of European and African musical cultures produced spirituals, gospel, blues, jazz, rock-and-roll, hip-hop, and many other creative forms that arose in spite of the overarching system of oppression that also generated conflict and suffering. Systems change from the edge, and systems also resist change and try to maintain themselves. So when we set out to change a system, we can expect both resistance and opportunities for great creativity and surprises.

Capture and store energy” is another principle, and its application to solar or wind energy is obvious. But there are also many forms of human energy and creativity we can benefit from that often go to waste—when young people, or women, or people of limited economic means are excluded from programs or projects, for example. And “obtain a yield” is a good principle for activists and communitarians to remember when we fall into the trap of exploiting ourselves out of our altruistic desires to serve a greater good. We also need to get something back, to sustain ourselves economically, emotionally, and physically with food and rest and beauty and yes, also money, if we are not to burn out and become nonfunctional.

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Permaculture also looks at patterns. What are the patterns and understandings that can help us structure groups in a healthy way? What tools and techniques—from ecology, but also from psychology, social science, spirituality, and the human potential movement—can help groups communicate more clearly, resolve conflicts, and function better?

In my book, The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups, I examine patterns I’ve observed over decades of participation in groups that were organized without top-down hierarchy: spiritual groups, activist groups, living collectives, permaculture groups, and many others. Over and over again, I saw groups struggle with the same issues of power and conflict. I came to the conclusion that non-hierarchical groups are inherently different from groups with top-down authority, and need a different set of tools and understandings.

In a healthy group, power is balanced by responsibility—that is, people earn power by taking on and fulfilling responsibilities. And when people take on responsibilities, they are empowered by the group to carry them out.

But power can be many things. Power-over is command and control power, the sort we’re all familiar with in top-down institutions from corporations to schools to the military. Power-from-within, or empowerment, is the personal and spiritual power we each have; creative power, skill, confidence, and courage—qualities that are not limited. If I have the power to write something inspiring, that doesn’t take away from your power. In fact, it might actually encourage your creativity.

And in groups, we encounter a third type of power: social power, prestige or influence, the measure of how much each person’s voice is heard. Social power can be earned, as it is by elders in tribal societies when they build a track record of good decisions and care for the community. But it can also be unearned—the privilege we might accrue from our gender or skin color or class background.

Healthy and functional groups attempt to do away with privilege, and to allow people to fairly earn social power by fulfilling responsibilities and developing a track record of commitment and service. And when people are given a responsibility, they are also given the authority—the license to use power—that they need to carry it out.

Groups fall into error when social power is hoarded—when, for example, the founders of a project cannot let go of control and new people cannot shape the group’s direction. But they may also err by according power indiscriminately to anyone who shows up, at the expense of those who do have a long-standing commitment to a group. If people cannot earn power by committing to the group and fulfilling responsibilities, the most committed and responsible often become discouraged and leave; unearned power or privilege creeps in and thrives. Power may become vested in those with the loudest voice or the most ardent desire, rather than in those who truly serve the group.

Nonhierarchical groups also need good communication skills and conflict resolution tools. Many of us grew up in families where Mom or Dad would step in and say, “You kids stop fighting!” In groups with top-down authority, someone—the boss, the leader, the guru—takes that role. But in horizontally-organized groups, no one has the authority to resolve a dispute or end a conflict. If such authority exists, it is held in the group itself—but often groups have no mechanisms or agreed-upon processes to invoke that authority. So conflicts may bounce around and around, without resolution, until people get sick of it all and leave.

To prevent this, groups need to consider how to deal with conflict before it develops. They need clear agreements, conflict resolution structures, and channels of communication built into group design, as well as tools and frameworks for governance and decision-making, for group facilitation and self-care.

Many of these tools exist in other disciplines. Social permaculture draws on the work many people have done in the group dynamics, nonviolent communication, psychotherapy, self-help, and the human potential movement for skills and tools, and part of our work is to bring these more fully into the trainings, gatherings, and projects of the permaculture movement.

Many people are now engaged in bringing forward social permaculture. I regularly co-teach social permaculture and facilitation trainings with Charles Williams of Earth Activist Training and Pandora Thomas, founder of the Black Permaculture Network.

In September of 2015, I was privileged to co-teach a special course on Social Permaculture with Looby McNamara and Peter Cow from Britain, Robyn Clayfield from Australia, and Robina McCurdy of New Zealand. Looby’s book People and Permaculture has been hugely influential in making people aware of the need for people-focused design. She and Peter Cow teach many courses together in permaculture people skills, facilitation, nature connection, and cultural design. Robin Clayfield has developed a wealth of tools for group facilitation, creative teaching methods, governance and decision-making systems. Robina McCurdy is skilled at community development, teaching environmental education and participatory decision-making. And many more teachers and leaders in the broad permaculture world are now understanding the need to strengthen the social aspect of regenerative design.

The ability of individuals and groups to collaborate successfully is one of the largest constraining factors in all forms of organizing, and as we succeed in creating more functional groups, all our work in every area of life will be strengthened.



Earth Activist Training:

Black Permaculture Network:

City Repair:

Pandora Thomas:

Looby MacNamara:

Peter Cow:

Robin Clayfield:

Robina McCurdy:

Starhawk is the author or coauthor of 13 books on earth-based spirituality and activism, including the classics The Spiral Dance, The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups, her visionary novel The Fifth Sacred Thing, and its long-awaited sequel, City of Refuge. Starhawk directs Earth Activist Trainings, teaching permaculture design grounded in spirit and with a focus on organizing and activism (, She travels internationally, lecturing and teaching on earth-based spirituality, the tools of ritual, and the skills of activism.

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